Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

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Writing – don’t be shy

When I started my PhD I had a simple plan in my head for how I thought it would go.

Year 1: Preliminary research, setting up the problem and gaining the knowledge base required to analyse my future results.

Year 2: Results come flooding in.

Year 3: Begin by pulling together the material I have generated and putting it into coherent form. A concentrated slog of writing, then I would be ready to submit.

Like all plans, it turned out to be wrong. It was probably useful in some sense, but my project has not followed the trajectory I set out in my head late in 2010. I actually had a substantial chunk of results (enough to write a paper) by the end of my first year. My second year was quite a barren time in terms of results, but highly educational. Now, in my third year, I am writing parts of my thesis before the model runs which will provide the bulk of two of the three results chapters are even finished.

I ended up starting my thesis earlier than expected because I had had some setbacks with the climate model I was using. Reading’s IGCM is a useful model but it has little documentation. Learning to use the model had as much in common with the oral traditions of the Icelandic sagas as it had with modern forms of written communication.

The long and short of it is that I had a lot of downtime while I was waiting for model test runs to complete, restarting crashed runs and so on. It took me around nine months from being introduced to the model to completing the final ‘results’ runs. The final runs themselves only took a month to run.

I found myself with some time on my hands. I could have done some tangential reading, but I find it hard to stay focused that way, and I don’t think I’m particularly good at learning that way. I learn much better with purpose behind me. For example, I learned a lot about radiation modelling a few months ago when I was writing the section of my thesis describing the code I was using, even though I had been using it since late 2010. Having to write it down forced me to re-examine what I did and didn’t know and to ensure my knowledge was up to scratch.

Early on in my PhD, while I was doing ‘exploratory’ reading and research, my supervisors encouraged me to write little reports. They told me it was good practice. Not only did it make me learn my stuff, it also helped them stay up to speed with the literature using my concise reviews. Also, some (but not all) of it could end up being slotted straight into my thesis. I ended up writing a few of these reports in my first two years. Some of them aren’t much use. Either the writing is too sloppy, or the results and/or analysis has changed. But one – a review of microphysical processes affecting sulphate aerosols – was indeed suitable to go straight into my thesis. Bam. A whole subsection. Done. And I wrote it in my first year!

I was also fortunate enough to have some interesting results by the end of my first year. Encouraged by my supervisors, I wrote a short paper about them. It was exciting for a young researcher to have a publication in a fine journal like Geophysical Research Letters. Re-reading the paper today there are quite a few things I would have changed. The figures could be improved and some of the methodology is needlessly fiddly. Nevertheless, it was another opportunity to write up a chunk of my future thesis. Even better, the quality of the work was somewhat assured since it got through peer review at GRL.

I have a spare couple of days while I run some diagnostics programs on my model runs, so I am writing this material into my thesis. It’s not quite as seamless as I wanted. The style of a thesis is more conversational than a paper (which is a shame – papers seem to be required to be difficult to read sometimes), so need to change that. I also have no space constraints, so I can expand on discussion if I thnk it’s appropriate. But even though I need to make changes, the main ideas and the deep thought behind this chapter of my thesis has already been done. It’s a good feeling.

It is not always possible to write a paper during your PhD. Sometimes it only comes together into a nice story later on. Nevertheless, I think it’s a very good idea to keep writing during your PhD. It helps drill information into your mind and saves you some work later on. It gives you a bit of variety in your everyday work. Your writing will improve, and, who knows, you might even like it.


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Don’t stick to the plan

Plans are useless, but planning is everything.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

I failed to take my own advice today. I wrote a substantial part of my thesis section on a climate model I am using without planning it. No outline, no concept map, nothing.

Sticking rigidly to the plan rarely works because you made your plan in your head and the real world doesn’t work the same as the one in there. That doesn’t mean planning is useless. Aspects of your plan might go awry, but it is unlikely to be entirely wrong. The plan helps formulate the problem clearly in your head and provide a path forward. You might deviate from the inital path, but it helps to have a few points of reference along the way (especially at the start).

In my defence, this section was a simple one. I was comparing the output from the IGCM‘s simulation of the present-day climate with observational and reanalysis data. I had already made all my figures; all I had to do was talk about them. Model assessment is rarely an exciting part of scientific writing. It is necessary, but there are no exciting results to present and discuss. This section answers the question ‘is the model alright?’. The answer is ‘yes, just about’.

In my thesis I have to be more rigorous than that, but the writing is more or less a simple description of the plots and a little discussion of whether the biases in the model are serious problems or not. I had put a little thought into this already and had a list of a few references I needed to include, so in a sense I had planned a little bit.

To write a detailed plan and concept map like I did for, say, the ethical and social subsection, would have been like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The ethical and social section was a foray into an area outside my expertise and was something which required a structured argument. The section on model assessment was comparatively simple to write. I noted this in advance and changed my plan accordingly. The section might need some proof-reading as a result, but in general the ‘Models & Methods’ section of any thesis is ‘menial’ work which doesn’t require too much difficult thought.


Thesis writing: concept maps

A concept map for a section of my literature review.

In a previous post I wrote a bit about outlining: a useful and pretty basic technique for planning any body of writing. You set down what you want to write, in order. Then you write it.
It is quite rare to be able to structure the argument beforehand in this way. I use an outline for a very high-level overview of my thesis. It is essentially a table of contents. I find outlining too restrictive for planning the content of a section. I switch to a close relative: the concept map.

I doubt I would be alone in being initially disparaging of the ‘mind maps’ we are encouraged to create by enthusiastic teachers. I didn’t get the point. Back then I understood what I was writing with sufficient clarity to be able to hold things in my head. I did not need a map around my mind.

Things have got rather more complicated since then. I can’t hold a whole thesis section in my mind. The material is too detailed and subtle for that. Sure, I understand the concepts, and what material I want to include, and I might even understand how the concepts interact. This does not mean I understand intuitively how to write these things down in a coherent fashion appropriate for my thesis. So I revisited the ‘mind map’, which I prefer to call a ‘concept map’. They are surprisingly effective provided you actually need to use them to structure subtle arguments.

The image at the top of the post shows a concept map I drew for a relatively straightforward section of my thesis. I divided it into three clear topics. There isn’t much interaction between the topics. Then I scribbled down a load of things I want to cover. I’m not quite sure of the order of things yet, but by writing things down I can visualise how things fit together. I have included a few key references but it is safe to say I have not fully worked out how this section is going to work. The concept map is a freeze-frame of the state of development. I can add to it later.

The image below shows a very different concept map. It is for the ‘ethical and social’ section of my thesis, which is a brief section explaining some of the non-scientific issues around geoengineering. The subject matter is profoundly different from every other section and not something I am too familiar with. I recently attended a transdisciplinary summer school hosted by the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, and that gave me enough information to write down what I thought were the key concepts. Then I did a little reading around each to make sure I understood them properly, and added references in red. Finally I attempted to link some concepts together (arrows). There are four groups on the map below, though the one on the bottom and right is quite a loose grouping.

Concept map for a subsection of my thesis

Concept map for the ethical review section

Seeing all the things I needed to cover in this format allowed me to quickly test out different combinations in my head. Which concepts were related? What are the broad topic areas involved? What is the relevance of all this to my discipline, atmospheric science? The concept map is not just a planning tool; it is a thinking one. I should have taken snapshots as I built it up, because it would have revealed much of my thought process.

I suppose ‘mind map’ is not a bad phrase. These things do indeed act as guides, allowing you to forget banal things like remembering all the things you’re supposed to be thinking about and focusing on the significance of these things to each other and your thesis. I referred to the map constantly while I was writing this section of my thesis and I found it a pleasure to write, having got a lot of the nitty-gritty part out of the way. Having it set out in front of me freed my brain for the more exciting mental gymnastics of arguing persuasively and coherently and writing clearly.


Thesis writing: outlining

In a previous post I explained how I think your thesis starts taking shape before you even think about it. It grows out of every little choice you make. This is reassuring. It means you are working on your thesis all the time!

This is all very well and good, but at some point you will have to write something down. There are a number of first steps you could take. The first thing I did was to write an outline.

An outline, very simply, is the thing you look at to remind yourself what you’re doing.

My present thesis outline is below. There is a lot more detail early on and it gets fuzzy later. This is nothing to worry about. The point of an outline is to record your vision for your thesis. Once I had this in place I could visualise how it would work together as a coherent whole. It also made me realise how much work I had left to do! This highlights the close relationship between the project plan and the thesis structure I talked about before.

An outline carries as much detail as you want. You can add to it over time and modify it as your thesis takes shape. Mine began with a working title and the headings for each chapter. I later added details as to the content of each chapter. I can also add notes giving the deadline for writing various sections, and move bits around as my vision for the thesis changes. In some sections I have begun to sketch out what I want to write, at least in the form of the things I need to get across. I wrote these down in no particular order and with no thought to how I would get these points across. That comes next in my thesis-writing system, the concept-map stage.

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Thesis writing: the plan

Start early. That is what PhD students are always told when it comes to their thesis. But how early is that? And what does ‘start’ actually mean? I’m going to argue that your thesis starts taking shape from the moment you start your project, through the myriad choices and little mistakes you make along the way. This is clearly only one approach – one I espouse based on the path I took.

Start out with a list of questions you would like to address during your PhD. See if you can build a ‘story’ out of them. In my case my three results chapters form parts of a causal chain, which makes it quite simple. You may have to work harder to find your story, but it is worth it.

My early PhD plan

My early PhD plan (from 6 months in)

You should be doing this in your first year. Honestly. This is not to sow panic among the ranks; my point is that your PhD thesis outline naturally grows out of your project plan. By ‘plan’ I certainly do not mean a timeline of future activities. Predicting when things will happen in your project is nearly impossible. But think about where you want to get with your project. Simply, what is the point? What information are you trying to uncover and how will you present that information in a convincing way? The image shows a basic plan I sketched out within 6 months of starting my PhD. The plan needs to cover three points:

  1. What are you going to do?
  2. How are you going to do it?
  3. Why is it awesome?

At the early stage I needed to work on point 3 and explain why my approach is a novel one. Note how even then I had a three-section structure which would fit nicely into my PhD thesis (in future posts in this series we will see how it has gradually and subtly changed).

Your thesis is not the story of your PhD. It is a story based on your PhD. You will not give a detailed chronological account of what you did, but you will tell a story based on what you learned. Like any story, it takes a while to get the plot elements in place. Play around with them. Don’t stress about it if they don’t seem to make sense. Come back to them later. By having a project plan you will accomplish two things: you will make your work more focused because you know what you are working towards, and you will have a ready-made thesis outline.

I have made many adjustments to my plan and will no doubt make many more. But this is no reason not to make a plan. Even if you don’t know your final destination you can at least ensure you head in the right direction.